Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

No discussion of the contemporary Mormon novel could happen today without some comment on Bady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, a nationally-published novel that looks at modern polygamy in Southern Utah. In many ways, The Lonely Polygamist is unlike other contemporary Mormon novels because it does not address contemporary mainstream Mormonism, but rather a fringe group that has no official ties to the Mormon Church. In fact, throughout the novel, the mainstream church is church is characterized as a monolithic sell-out denomination that lacks the authority and blessing of God. At the same time, however, Udall–who comes out of a mainstream tradition–does much to draw parallels between his polygamist sect and mainstream Mormons; in fact, I would argue that the novel itself uses polygamy as a way to exaggerate many of the cultural dilemmas within contemporary mainstream Mormon life: large families, the continuing legitimacy of patriarchy, interaction with non-Mormons, and the construction and definition of cultural boundaries and limitations.

At the same time, however, Udall situates these issues within the broader culture of post-war America. In fact, while Udall’s polygamists are mostly separate from their Southern Utah mainstream community–which itself is largely separate from the rest of America–they nevertheless cannot avoid the intrusion of something like American popular culture. Romance novels, for example, run rampant through the novel, primarily for the way they privilege and romanticize monogamous heterosexuality, but also how they construct and affirm traditional gender roles–which contrasts significantly to the way Udall’s polygamists live, providing even a form of escape for one wife, beset by depression, who consistently fails to find the promised meaning and blessing in her non-traditional marriage.

Continue reading “Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism”

James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite”

I recently read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. I enjoyed it quite a bit even as I disagreed with some of his emphases and tone. In fact I would recommend it over his more recent book How Fiction Works (which I discussed last year).

In particular, I like that he focuses heavily on actual examples pulled from works of literature by great authors. Yes, sometimes the prose swelters, sometimes things are dismissed with a casual tone that doesn’t convince and the continual hammering insistence on realism sometimes get tiring, but on the whole it was a good reading experience. He’s especially good with the author’s he loves, writing mash notes to their work that are lovely and specific and do what good literary criticism does: makes you want to read (or re-read) the author’s work.

And in returning to the foreword, I found an interesting passage that relates to the whole issue of agency and fiction which I raised last week. After quoting Thomas Mann’s assertion that fiction is “always a matter of the ‘not quite'”, he writes: Continue reading “James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite””

James Wood on the “nonsense written” about characters in fiction

From what I recall (I consume way too much without proper digestion), James Wood is a meanie of a literary critic who is erudite to a flaw and a bit fusty. I probably read some of his reviews back when I was reading The New Yorker (grandparents had a subscription — is anything better than hand-me-down magazines?), but I don’t remember them. However, when I read the reviews of his latest book How Fiction Works, I quickly ordered it from my local library. Several months later, I finally have it in hand.

I enjoyed it and learned from it so I suppose that means that it’s a good book. Reminds be a bit of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction in its breadth and insistent literariness. I liked that Wood uses tons of examples from literature and that he expresses a real breadth as a reader (although he doesn’t deal much with genre) in that he likes and finds value in works of literary realism, postmodernism, and pre-realism, yet isn’t afraid to show where all of them can go wrong. He cites (approvingly) James and Nabokov and Austen and Stendhal and others and does a good job of not conflating all of them. He shows where there are serious points of differences. I also love that he clearly loves novels, loves fiction. And he goes after some of the silly truisms that get passed on, celebrating all types of metaphor and characters and style and point of view (although he does go on about free indirect discourse a lot — but he’s right — it’s what makes novels unique and wonderful and heterglossic, to borrow from Bakhtin). One wishes for a bit more structure and the latter 1/3 of the book seems a bit more rushed and less-developed than what comes before. Continue reading “James Wood on the “nonsense written” about characters in fiction”